“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke
From the introduction to the back-story to the execution of a particular set of events and techniques, a myriad of factors must go exactly right to successfully perform an illusion. This calculated multiplicity is key to the illusion’s power to fool the mind; Illusion is complexity veiled, and made to appear so simple that its appearance can only be construed as magic. It can have the effect of transforming people’s perception and definition of what is possible. It can create trust, while inspiring disbelief. Above all else, illusion makes people believe, even when they don’t trust what they are witness to.
For centuries, magicians have passed bits and pieces of this intangible power on from generation to generation. The brotherhood and trust that has formed among illusionists is reflective of the power itself. There are always elements and intricacies of the execution that are held back and the greatest illusions of all are left for each individual, magician or not, to decode on their own.
Along with the magician’s code of secrecy though, there has also been a tradition—or sense of responsibility passed down through the world’s greatest illusionists—for skepticism and demystification. Harry Houdini debunked spiritualist séances and commissioned a book called, “The Cancer of Superstition.” While the Canadian illusionist James Randi exposed faith healers, wizards, psychics, prophets and more. Today, that tradition is upheld in the work of Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller who have been amazing and enlightening audiences with their mix of illusion, comedy, and skepticism since 1975.
Describing themselves as “a couple of eccentric guys who have learned how to do a few cool things,” their approach to magic and their populist success as magicians is strengthened by subversion. Penn and Teller thrive on debunking pseudoscientific ideas, they undermine their craft by making tricks look easy and, without breaking the magician’s code of secrecy, they continually invite their audience to discover the magic of magic. As Penn has said, “One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we’re in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality.”
In marketing, the distinction between fantasy and reality can be a trivial one—particularly in tech, where consumers willingly engage with new and mystifying products though they may not understand the backend processes. Illusion relies on this tendency—misinterpretation of the total activities occurring. Illusionists often appear calm, cool and collected with many of their movements subtle and undetected, much the same as a duck crossing a pond – graceful and steady above water, but hidden beneath the surface is a flurry of movement necessary just to keep it afloat and on course. To this end, marketers can use illusion to distract and excuse the consumer from his unfamiliarity with new products and technologies. The power of illusion is to make an entire system of activities and channels materialize as one simple and magical experience for the consumer. Principles of design thinking enable brands to synthesize their many features and capabilities as a captivating narrative—an illusion. By creatively locating the illusory magic of their products, brands can leverage the power of amazement to shift perspectives and compel consumer activity.
Apple, for example, officially describes the iPad not with a long list of technical jargon but as a “magical device.” The illusion, in this case, plays up magic to obfuscate the complexities. The language, like the interfaces themselves, becomes a veil of illusion. The operating systems show only the top layer of their framework, making the user experience feel like magic. As Apple designer Johnny Ives contended in the iPadʼs original promotional video: “When something exceeds your ability to know how it works, it sort of becomes magical.” Behind the veil, of course there are innumerable processes occurring, but emphasis is placed on the visual and sensual rather than the technical—“It’s like holding the internet in your hands.” Instead of dwelling on practical features or the ‘technical how’ of the product, the strength of illusion is such that audiences are contented to wallow in a state of amazement and disbelief.
Similarly, Sergey Brin likens Google to ‘the mind of God’ – and it can seem that way sometimes with its uncannily accurate responses to keyword queries. While behind the scenes, transport agents mine the data and return with results algorithmically sorted by relevance, the product works so instantaneously and accurately as to seem magical, predictive and productive in the sense that it brings something out of nothing. In fact, it is the aggregate effect of aggregate activities showing forth as illusory magic, a product of faith and awe. Or as Teller reveals, “to fool the mind, you must combine at least two tricks.”
Illusion’s ability to confound the senses buys the illusionist a currency of sort. This currency can be used throughout the duration of the spell to help reset the audience’s understanding and is something that magicians can capitalize on. For brands, that sense of spellbound infatuation translates as a unique opportunity to close sales and secure extended loyalty. For Apple and Google, the mysterious nature of magic plays on people’s need to believe, creating a cult-like following.
The magician’s oath promises “never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless he swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn.” Exposure of the secret is believed to remove the element of amazement. The tricks lose their ‘magic’ and instead function as intellectual puzzles. Penn and Teller however, debunkers that they are, frequently reveal their methods using transparent props. They reason that an understanding and appreciation of the mastery and cleverness of the illusion actually enhances the audience’s experience. Furthermore, Penn and Teller add twists and unexplained effects into the exposures that are even more astonishing than the original trick. Rather than ruining the magic by revealing the simplicity of the secret, they raise the stakes by educating their audience, and proceeding to astonish them still more. Entertaining an informed audience is more ambitious and rewarding than going for the cheap thrill. As consumers become increasingly technologically literate and curious—not to mention suspicious of sales jargon—brands too can benefit by demystifying their own magic. When James Dyson revolutionized the vacuum with dual cyclone technology, he made the dust container transparent so people could see how it worked. In the innovation economy, value is made not only from the ‘magical’ effects of a good product but also from the beauty of that product’s inner workings, the processes involved, and the methods that lead to it.
To truly mesmerize his consumers, a savvy brand magician plays first into their faculties for astonishment and disbelief, and then engages their curiosity.
*originally published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Simplicity Issue